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Stop the Abuse

Publication Date: 2002-12-07

I don't know when, in last two weeks, anyway, an article has made me so sick as the New York Times piece which provoked this commentary.

Soon, when kindergartners come to school, at the end of the first report card period the teacher will send home a report card filled with ?F?s,? notifying parents that the child is nonstandard goods. Kindergartners below grade level: what a concept.

It looks like this idea is coming soon to Philadelphia. Take a look at the New York Times article posted below.

The bizarre thing is that we all know ?grade level? is a meaningless construct. And even if there is such a thing as "grade level," since when did we expect all kids to get there at the same rate? Why is it acceptable in Philadelphia to humiliate those who don't?

This grading policy, of course, isn?t about kids; it?s about protecting your ass. Putting all your eggs in the grade level basket in early elementary school is a strategy for preparing the public to accept the notion that receipt of a high school diploma depends on the number received on one high-stakes test. School officials, embarrassed by parents who complain that Johnny has passed all his courses but still isn?t getting a report card, will be able to fend off complaints by saying that Johnny's numbers have never been right,

In Boston, the superintendent of schools notified teachers last year that students who fail the state test cannot receive a passing mark in the course?no matter what kind of work they do.

The testocracy rules.

What will it take to get teachers to stop cooperating in the abuse of children? Maybe every teacher in the land needs to reread commentary on the Nuremberg Trial: a world panel of judges decided that "following orders" is not an excuse for committing evil. It wasn?t an excuse in Nazi Germany; it must not be an excuse in American schools.


December 3, 2002
Failing and Frustrated, School Tries Even F's

PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 2 ? Collette Clark was near tears. The 15 fourth and fifth graders in her reading class at the William D. Kelley Elementary School were working hard, she told her colleagues at a meeting with the principal. They were improving, she said.

But now, with the first report cards looming and the school operating under a newly stringent grading system, Ms. Clark was confronting a devastating reality: "They're all going to get F's," she said.

Ms. Clark's class is in the middle of the biggest experiment in public education in the country. The state has taken over the city's deeply troubled school system and brought in Edison Schools, a private company, to manage the 20 lowest performers, including Kelley. (An additional six outside managers have been assigned to 25 other schools.)

The 375 students at Kelley live in North Philadelphia, one of the poorest sections of the city. For some, just getting to school is an achievement. Many of their parents work long hours at low-paying jobs that leave them little time or energy for their children. Others are being raised by grandparents and even great-grandparents, and the older generations are getting worn out. Some live with foster parents and some have parents in jail.

For five weeks now, for 90 minutes every morning, Ms. Clark, 33, has been reading to her students, leading them in structured discussions about the books, testing their comprehension. She exhorts them to read at home for at least 20 minutes every evening ? and calls parents to make sure the children are reading. She tells them they are smart.

Slowly, the 11 boys and 4 girls in her reading class are beginning to catch on.
She tells her class, "If you can't read, you can't do anything else."

Students who continue to read far below grade level are likely to give up and leave school altogether, experts say. One of the main measures of the success of Edison, the nation's largest private manager of public schools, will be whether the children at Kelley and the 19 other schools can significantly improve their reading test scores ? and how quickly.

At Kelley last year, more than 73 percent of the fifth graders could not achieve even marginal performance on the state reading exam. Only 5 percent of the students were proficient at reading. With a convoluted grading system that Paul G. Vallas, the new chief executive of the school system, intends to fix, Kelley has decided for now to follow district guidelines that call for children in fourth grade and above who are reading two levels below their grade to get F's. Those who are reading one level below will get D's.

"We're trying to do the right thing," said the principal, Michael F. Garafolo, "to set the record straight."

The principal added that he felt bad about children who would be receiving failing grades. Every year, it seems, Kelley tries something else ? a new curriculum, different books, rewards ? to help the students conquer reading. This year's tougher grades are intended to bring greater accountability and a sense of urgency ? for teachers, students and parents ? to the task of reading.

Edison had wanted to put in place its own grading system, which is based on student performance and emphasizes progress, but was not able to negotiate it as part of its contract with Philadelphia.

Ms. Clark was still agonizing over the grades for her reading class last week. After consulting with the reading coordinator, Loretta McGuigan, she decided that eight of her fourth graders were reading at a high enough level above second grade ? though they were still below third grade ? to merit D's. The other seven students would still be getting F's. Many of her students are getting A's and B's in effort, she said.

Still, she worries that the F's will cause some students to give up. "Some of them are right on that edge where if they get an F, I worry they'll just say, `Forget it,' " she said.

Ms. Clark lives in the northeast section of Philadelphia and has two school-age daughters. For seven years she has commuted two hours a day by car to and from Kelley. "I feel like these are my children, too," she said. "They're bright. I get upset when they don't do well."

At 9:15 a.m. on a recent Monday, her fourth and fifth graders gathered in Room 308 for reading. At Kelley, as at other Edison schools, reading is considered sacred time. To group children into the smallest possible classes, everyone teaches reading ? classroom teachers, the gym teacher, art teachers, even the principal.

Ms. Clark read from "The Case of the Great Sled Race" and then discussed it. She praised Tahji Gadson, a fourth grader, for defining "belligerent" as "angry" and then succinctly summarizing the plot.

"Tahji, you're on fire today!" she said.
Next the class recited the vocabulary ? "horrible," "photographic" and "valuable" ? from another book, "Cam Jansen and the Mystery at the Monkey House," about a girl with a photographic memory.
Ms. Clark asked the students to construct sentences using the vocabulary, starting with "director." Hands shot up. "I'm the director of my little brother," volunteered Frank Turner, a fourth grader.

"Yes!" the teacher said.

Ms. Clark had already begun talking to her class about the report cards that will go out in mid-December. "I asked them what reading level they thought they were on," she said. "One boy said second grade, and another boy said, `No, we're not, we're on third.' Someone else said they were on fourth and fifth. I said, `No, he's right, you're on second.' "

She told them that their level had nothing to do with how hard they have been working, or with their progress. "I told them, `You're doing a great job, most of you are getting 100's. I'm really sorry, I know it doesn't seem fair, but we have to do our work and really focus.' "

It was a hard moment in Room 308. "Some of them looked upset," Ms. Clark said. "Others got an attitude. They said, `I ain't reading at no second grade level.' They were just trying to protect themselves."

Malik Wood, a fourth grader who just won student of the month at Kelley, has improved enough to move up to the next reading group. "I like reading words," Malik said, adding that he especially likes the word "photographic."

"I'm getting a D," volunteered Frank Turner. "My mother says I better bring it up to an A."

Frank's mother, Jamonitcah Miller, 33, a certified nursing assistant, restated that point later, saying, "He's got to prove to them that he can read, and comprehend."
While it is still too early to tell how the students in the upper grades are doing, Mrs. McGuigan says there have been improvements in the lower grades. She and the other teachers say they wish more were available to help the children ? tutors, extra books to take home, a functioning library. They say they hope Edison will make the difference.

Last Monday Ms. Clark sent the parents a letter explaining the grades on the report cards, and inviting the parents to meet with her.

Sameerah Stone is a fourth grader in the class. Her mother, Carol, 40, is a home health care aide who dropped out of high school and says she will do anything to keep her daughter from following her example. She keeps three dictionaries handy for helping Sameerah, and made a special trip to a bookstore downtown for a $39 textbook a friend recommended she buy for her daughter. In response to Ms. Clark's letter, she promised to redouble her efforts with Sameerah.

"It's a lot of work," she said. "But it has to be done."


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